INCIDENT AT CALETA BEACH
You tell me who was right – after twenty-four years the day is as clear in my memory as yesterday. And after all that time, I still don’t know what to believe.
Caleta* was Acapulco’s morning beach in my grandfather Papa Memo’s day. My grandfather was the epitome of the Mexican gentleman, warm, family-oriented, and a man of absolutely unwavering integrity.
In those days you saw everyone who was in town at Caleta in the morning. Then, at a suitable time, you went back to your house to bathe; to have that meal known as “la comida,” the food, which could be lunch or brunch or even an early dinner, and which was being prepared by the cook; and to lie in a hammock through the worst heat of the day. Late afternoons, you went to Playa Hornos. I barely had a few years to do this as a child transplanted to Mexico before my beloved grandfather passed away.
In our day, Bill’s and mine, Caleta had lost its uniqueness to population booms, but it was still close to Albemar, my family’s home. We settled on our small plot of sand, to people-watch, to keep our three small children from following the wavelets too deep, to watch for that occasional big wave which still washes up all the way to the base of the hotel which has stood, bare concrete, unfinished due to legal troubles, for as long as I can remember.
The umbrella was set in the sand. Our baby daughter dug happily with her bucket of ocean water to fill the hole. The white-shirted waiter with the rolled up pants and bare feet had brought us two white-painted slatted wood lounge chairs, and would come later with sodas for all, ceviche for Bill if he dared.
People walked by as they will on a beach, vendors of shell necklaces and mangoes dipped in chile piquín, waiters with coconuts. Not crowded, not empty. Just right.
A lone lounge chair twenty feet to our left, ten closer to the water’s edge, sat in isolated splendor – no umbrella, no beach table, no thatched hut – in a patch of sand. A Mexican family, father and three boys, moved decorously – in sand it is hard to do otherwise – between us and the water, and the trailing small boy sat for a moment on the edge of the chair. The father turned to hurry his brood on, the boy stood up and continued trailing along.
All at once, in the middle of this idyll designed to dull the mind to pure lazy observer, came shouting from the waves. Caleta is a tranquil beach, half of a tiny bay, divided from Caletilla by the causeway that goes to the island, but people still drown here. So shouts are heeded.
The words were unrecognizable, guttural, but it could have been the distance. The man charging out of the water had a big belly. It is hard work to charge out of the water. He came slowly until the water cleared his chest, then moved up the beach as fast as his bulk would allow, yelling all the time. He switched to English, and my ear pulled the sound out of the soft murmuring Spanish background. The word he was yelling was “Thief!”
My Spanish-challenged husband said “Stay out of it.” He went back to helping the baby dig to China.
The Mexican gentleman came to a stop, the very portrait of affronted dignity. The German tourist – for he could be no other – gesticulated wildly and switched to his limited Spanish, bellowing “Policía!” I see the small group yet, rooted unyielding in the sand of memory.
There is a tiny cement hut at the end of the causeway where a contingent of blue-uniformed policemen discretely supervise the goings-on of the glass-bottom boats bobbing along the causeway, and the occasional beach drunk. One appeared, notified by the grapevine. He attempted to calm the tourist, assuage the wounded pride of the Mexican gentleman called a thief in front of his children.
El policía had little English – and his set and the German’s didn’t overlap. I, born nosy and American and bilingual, approached, and gingerly asked if I could help. Bill, in the background, shook his head, and dedicated himself to keeping our boys, just as nosy, 3 and 5, but NOT bilingual, well away from the tableau we must have made.
The German tourist latched on to me, explaining loudly in his limited English. I translated. The Mexican father shook is head slowly, consented only to explain gravely, because he had been accused, that he was looking for a place to settle his brood, with their bags and toys, on the beach. The policeman looked baffled and attempted to be conciliatory: there must have been some mistake.
But the evidence was incontrovertible: the smallest of the Mexican boys, the one who had perched briefly at the end of the German’s carefully isolated chair, held in his hand a plastic bag containing the German’s wallet and hotel key.
The German gentleman’s story: he had come to the beach alone, and fearing thieves, had set the chair well apart so he could watch his belongings from the water. His fear had now been confirmed.
The Mexican gentleman’s story: he was looking for a piece of beach for the day; the children were dawdling; he had spoken sharply to the one who sat for a moment, to pick up his things and stop falling behind. The father was thoroughly mortified, but it was clearly a mistake, and his son would now hand the German back his property.
The policeman was baffled. I translated all into English for the benefit of the German gentleman, and his comments into Spanish for the Mexican gentleman and the policeman.
The child was admonished. The policeman clearly wanted the matter to disappear. The German was asked if he wanted to press charges. I was asked what I saw, which was very little – I did not notice whether the child had anything in his hand when he sat down, and I did not see him pick the bag up when he moved on.
The impasse settled like the baking sun on our little group. Finally, I asked the German whether he would be satisfied with an apology. He reluctantly agreed. I translated into Spanish: the dignified Mexican gentleman was affronted – he had already apologized, according to his lights. The policeman saw a resolution, pressed his co-national.
The Mexican gentleman, clearly unhappy, asked me to translate his formal apology to the foreign tourist. The German nodded his head brusquely. Neither man offered a hand.
The policeman went off, the matter dealt with to his satisfaction. The German tourist thanked me roughly, and went back into the water to our left, leaving his plastic bag now carefully tied to the lounge chair. The Mexican gentleman chose a section of thatched hut to our right, called a waiter, requested a drink. The three little boys dashed off to the water.
And so we sat in face-saving splendor. The German stayed in the water long enough to prove he was unbowed, then ostentatiously retrieved his bag and left the beach. A while later we gathered our children and their toys and sandals and towels, and headed out to get a taxi back to Albemar on the hill. We left the Mexican gentleman still in possession of the battlefield.
But I have wondered all these years whether the Mexican gentleman, so poised and so middle-class, and so offended, was not a Fagin with the perfect excuse for his small accomplices to pick up bags left carelessly unattended on the beach by foreigners, even in cahoots with the police. I don’t know why I think that.
And I wonder still whether I did not do the German tourist a terrible disservice because the Mexican gentleman, dark-skinned, balding, self-possessed, was the perfect reincarnation of my beloved Papa Memo.
*This image, courtesy of Wikipedia, is from 2009. In 1992, when this incident occurred, there would have been far fewer chairs and thatched umbrellas and people. There were fewer hotels, and an unfinished one behind the beach. Caletilla is to the right, past the causeway from which this photo appears to have been taken.